Every Chinese Spring Festival Eve, Mum invited Dad’s parents, sisters and brothers for a family meal. Our cold, dim kitchen held a traditional mud stove, and a honeycomb briquette one. The month leading up to the meal, less water was boiled, more food-ration coupons were saved. A week before, Mum spent every evening in the kitchen, sitting down only to ease her back pain. White and red radish pickled in sugar and salt; preserved duck eggs, boiled, cooled, and cut; identical thin wedges like toy boats docked in a quiet harbour. Pan-roasted Ci Gu (taro) from Mum’s garden; soup with pork bones from Dad’s chess mate butcher; white-liquor pork sausages and gluten-rice-ginger meatballs were made by Mum’s mother living on a farm two hundred kilometers away. They were a once-a-year treat.
Our chopsticks did not work hard that night. We needed space to relish Mum’s spring- onion noodles after our guests said Wan Shi Ru Yi (all goes well) and goodbye.
Mum and Dad renovated the kitchen soon after the food ration was lifted. A brand-new two-head gas stove sat in pride in the middle of the old kitchen. Every Sunday evening, Mum’s kitchen was a hot sauna: steaming ginger-pork buns; bubbling chicken soup with peppery pork and baby bamboo shoots. Mum sat there smiling, watching us dipping the buns into rice vinegar, soaking the chicken and pork in sesame, garlic and red-chili sauce.
She apologized for not being able to feed us good protein when we were growing up. Steam softened wrinkles around her eyes and lips. Tears in her eyes sparkled like bright stars.
Many years later, we visited Mum in China. With her back bent, she managed ginger-pork buns and meatballs. Her grandson wanted burgers and asked if we could order a takeaway and have it delivered.